The artist Paul Gauguin couldn't resist its limpid waters, cooling trade winds, and lush peaks and valleys. Nor could the mutineers of the HMS Bounty. Tahiti, more than any other place on earth, has long embodied the fantasy of escaping to a tropical island.
Tahiti is just one of 118 islands comprising French Polynesia—a largely autonomous territory scattered across the South Pacific—but it's the most developed and most populous. It's home to Papeete, the capital, where baguettes are as ubiquitous as e'ia ota (marinated fish). From the West Coast, the flight to Papeete is a couple of hours shorter than the one to Paris.
While the island of Tahiti itself has plenty of natural and cultural attractions, including the ebony sands of Papenoo Beach, it's also the jumping-off spot for other points in French Polynesia. From Papeete's harbor, a 30-minute ferry ride takes you to slower-paced Moorea, with its reasonably priced resorts, white-sand beaches, and coral gardens submerged in a lagoon that's perfect for snorkeling.
Farther afield, but easily accessed by short flights, are the Leeward Islands. They include Bora-Bora, home to scores of luxury resorts as well as craggy green mountains that plunge into a sapphire lagoon, and Huahine, nearly as seductive as Moorea or Bora-Bora but less touched by tourism. The ideal way to explore the Leewards is by sea, perhaps on a multiday catamaran cruise. As your boat stops at a deserted motu (sandy islet), all those tropical island fantasies become real.